How would the City of Davenport have covered the recent vetoes by Mayor Bill Gluba of the Dock development plan and the St. Ambrose University rezoning request for a new stadium? And how would it have covered Gluba's proposal to bring illegal immigrants to Davenport, which was - to put it mildly - poorly received by the city council?
These were the questions that came to mind with the revelation by the Quad-City Times' Barb Ickes (on the same day as the vetoes) that the Fiscal Year 2015 city budget includes $178,000 for what she described as "a news-based Web site ... [to] shine new light on positive and negative city happenings."
It's clear that the site is an attempt to, at least in part, bypass the traditional news media and speak directly to constituents about good things city government is doing and positive developments in Davenport - without that pesky "other side" of the story. And, given our local television stations' tendency to air unsourced and vaguely sourced stories, one might infer that another motivation is giving those broadcast news operations easily adaptable material that would warmly present Davenport.
But this idea was also pitched by city staff quoted in the article as "bold" and a "deep dive," words that suggest ambition beyond marketing. As Davenport Business Development Manager (and former daily-newspaper reporter) Tory Brecht said: "As far as we can tell, no U.S. city has embarked on this effort."
The news site is supposed to be launched in the next few months, and of course it's impossible to pass judgment on it without actually seeing the thing.
Yet the twin aims of the initiative seem fundamentally incompatible, and it's hard to envision how the nobler of these goals can be accomplished given the inherent lack of independence in a city-run "news" operation.
And that's why I return to the Dock, the St. Ambrose stadium, and the Gluba immigration proposal. These were the city's big stories last month, and one can't envision a Davenport news site ignoring them while retaining its credibility. But I can't for the life of me figure out how it would have covered them.
"Our Story" and the "Truth"
The Fiscal Year 2015 Davenport budget vaguely mentioned "a new communications initiative, Open Davenport," with funding for several new positions: a part-time Web designer, three part-time "content providers," and a "student reporter" - accounting for 2.75 full-time equivalents.
Ickes' article noted the hiring of another newspaper reporter - the Quad-City Times' Kurt Allemeier - and fleshed out the idea for the public. (Both Brecht and Allemeier covered Davenport city government.) The comments of various city employees and city-council members were instructive - and, perhaps inevitably, contradictory.
On the one hand:
"We do stuff all the time - good stuff, great stuff, life-changing stuff - that never sees light of day," said City Administrator Craig Malin. "We're a 24/7 shop with 800 employees."
"A lot of times, the good-feeling stories don't sell so much," said Alderman Bill Edmond. "We need to tell them ourselves. We need to ... tell our story from the city's side."
"We have a positive message," Alderman Ray Ambrose said. "We've always struggled to get that message out."
"You lose too much when you allow somebody else to tell your story," Brecht said.
And on the other hand:
"The city ends up having to tell its bad news, anyway," Brecht said. "Why not be out front?"
"You'll see the truth being told," Malin said.
Here you begin to see the disconnect of this undertaking - between the stated goal of marketing ("tell our story") and the promise of journalism ("the truth"). Sometimes those things align; often, they butt heads.
The concept is still under development, and information from the city remains skeletal. A PowerPoint dated July 31 says the initiative is "expected to share information as events are unfolding" and that "messages must be clear and pro-active." Under the heading "Communications Strategy," there's a promise that the city will "provide updates as events happen; good and bad; controversies."
Last week, I asked Davenport Communications Director Jennifer Nahra if Ickes' article still "remains true to the spirit of what you're trying to do." She wrote: "At this time, it really is impossible for us to say specifically what elements the new Web site will contain ... . Our intent with the new portal is to improve internal and external communications by providing citizens with an opportunity to receive, on one platform, more Davenport-specific information while engaging in the conversation."
That cagey reply suggests that Davenport's staff might be struggling with the practical challenges of news presented by city government.
I also allow that perhaps our definition of "news" is different - what journalism entails, and our beliefs about whether insightful, relevant, and incisive coverage requires or benefits from the adversarial relationship between independent news-gathering organizations and their subjects. Maybe Malin and company define "news" merely as offering the city's side of the story unfiltered by outside parties. Or presenting "just the facts" - which is undoubtedly an element of news, but one that's mostly meaningless without context and interpretation.
Still, I'll take their comments at face value - that this is something "bold" (Nahra's word) and unprecedented (Brecht's statement) - and a news-like packaging of marketing just doesn't fit those claims. So let's proceed with the idea that the City of Davenport wants to create an authentic news site held to the standards of independent journalism - which would be bold and unprecedented.
I'm intrigued by the idea in theory - although the price tag seems awfully steep for what amounts to an experiment. (The budget says the new positions under the city administrator are paid for by the elimination of the assistant-city-administrator position, but there's a new assistant-to-the-city-administrator slot being created another department.)
Part of my interest is good-natured: I'm curious to see whether this thing works, and how it works, and the types of reporting and writing about city business that people paid by the city can accomplish. Maybe it will will surprise me.
And part of it is akin to my baser interest in car crashes: This can't work, and I want to see how long it takes to blow up or reveal its irrelevance.
Dealing with the Mess
I can certainly see situations when the City of Davenport, with its internal professional expertise, could tell its stories better than media outlets with limited resources and generalist reporters. Explanations of byzantine processes that illuminate how they produce desired results. Long-term analyses of public-safety, budget, and economic-development trends. Layperson-friendly discussions of revenues, taxation, expenditures, and staffing. Retrospective studies of the economic impacts of major projects such as River Renaissance. Evaluations of the concrete returns on investment of city incentives such as TIF. Comparisons of different municipal policies in the Quad Cities area, and how those correlate with outcomes. Explorations of how innovations from other governments might work in Davenport.
Thoughtful, thorough public-service pieces such as these would inform the public and the city council and help guide them toward progressive policy.
Yet I present these well-intentioned (if largely dry) ideas in part because they would avoid controversy. I can't see Davenport's news service doing much of anything else without getting in trouble with the people holding the purse strings.
This new operation will be under the city administrator's purview, and he answers to the city council, which decides on a budget. If the news operation doesn't tread lightly, it endangers its long-term funding. To put it bluntly, reporters will know that their city income depends on not pissing off city-council members. And while aldermen were receptive to the idea of the news site in approving the budget, they - and future city councils - might be far cooler to the actual practice of it.
That's not a recipe for good journalism; it's a recipe for pandering to and not angering the bosses - likely an impossible task given the number of them.
The St. Ambrose stadium? The Dock? Gluba's immigration initiative? What angles could be taken on these major news stories that would both enlighten and not offend the city council? The first two are policy questions that hinge on what people will believe might happen - for better or worse. The last one is an emotional issue of deeply held beliefs.
What happens the next time an alderman faces a DUI or weapons charge? This is news in the sense of one's suitability for public office, but ... .
Or what happens if there's an investigation into some misuse of city funds or property? Or allegations of police-department mistreatment of citizens? How would the municipal news agency deal with lawsuits against the City of Davenport?
Malin told Ickes that there are things the site won't cover - such as city-council campaigns."I think we'll lose credibility ... if this is a political undertaking," he said. "This isn't a political arm we're creating. Campaigns are theatre. Elections are news."
Campaigns are indeed theatre: opinions and positions and posturing and accusations, all of which can inflame. Election returns, on the other hand, are inoffensive, safe facts.
But the news site, to be bold and innovative, cannot be safe, and the city administrator is - beyond the superficial distinction he's drawing - misguided on several fronts. Campaigns are news, and you can't have election returns without them. Policy and politics are hopelessly intertwined. And much news is also contrived theatre - press releases, sound bites, and spin typically presented by the media in an artificial formula pitting one side against the other, with both viewpoints offered as equally valid.
Most importantly, the news site's credibility actually depends on dealing with the city's controversial subjects and drama and conflict and opposing arguments and lawsuits and arrests and other messy, ugly stuff - and handling them fairly and intelligently. The answer is not to sidestep them.
But Malin's comment alludes to the core reality that a news operation under his control has to answer to the city council - and is therefore hamstrung at the outset with one of its core missions.
There's only one way around that central problem, and it's complete independence from the city administrator and the city council. And the way to do that is ... ummmm ... an entity outside city government that receives no funding from city government?